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Ethnic Discord : Latvia Playing Russian Roulette : Courting chaos, the new Baltic state may strip more than a million of their citizenship.

March 24, 1992|TAMARA JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"But many Russians are reluctant to protest this whole thing or to openly express their opinions, because then if they do apply for citizenship, their loyalty may be questioned."

Whenever the next elections are held, the Supreme Council is almost certain to tilt further to the right, since the citizenship act will give the next vote only to the pre-1940 Latvians and their direct descendants.

All residents were allowed to vote regardless of nationality when the current legislature was elected in 1990. Even the hated Red Army troops could cast ballots.

Until the August coup attempt, opinion polls indicated that the majority of Russians living in the Baltics opposed independence for their adopted state.

Visvaldis Lacis, a 67-year-old deputy from another pro-Latvian faction in the Supreme Council, has a pointed message for the Russians living in Latvia:

"Nobody asked you to come," he tells the Russians, "and you can't feel at home, because you have occupied this land.

"Russians often say, 'But this means we'll be second-class citizens,' and I tell them, 'No, you're not second-class citizens. You're not citizens at all.

" 'You are nothing.' "

A Troubled Melting Pot

Russians Flood In . . .

Russians were once enticed to go to Latvia as part of Moscow's plan to prevent any republic from becoming self-sufficient. After the three Baltic states were annexed by the Soviets in 1940, tens of thousands of Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians were eventually deported, while about 1.5 million ethnic Russians flooded in.

. . .But Hostility Lingers 5 Decades Later

Now, in a quest to restore its identity, Latvia is considering a stringent citizenship act that would in essence render nearly half its population illegal aliens. Citizenship would be granted to those who held it before the 1940s Soviet occupation and to their children and grandchildren.

Others would be required to: * Have at least 16 years' permanent residence. * Renounce any other citizenship. * Swear allegiance to Latvia. * Show a basic grasp of Latvia's constitution. * Have a basic grasp of the language.

Latvia's Population (1991, at time of independence)

Native Latvians: 54%

Russians: 33% Poles, Belarussians and Ukranians: 13%

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